Starting from a railway
The longer I stay in Akita the more curious I want to learn about people and culture here. We can easily eat Kiritanpo (a kind of grilled rice stick) with hot pot, and hear about the famous Hinaidori (a kind of local chicken) or bear hot pot. These kinds of food can all connect with the hunter culture in inland area of Akita. In fact, I have already experienced the Akita Nairiku line in mid-January. Since that I have an indissoluble bond with the Akita hunter culture. Taking advantage of a special opportunity I joined an experience tour which was about hunter and local culture. We cooked some traditional food with hunters and local people. Also we walked into the woods and learned a lot from them. Although it was freezing outside, I could feel their warm hearts. And seriously considered about how to protect these endangered hunter culture.Stories behind hunter’s knife, Nagasa
In front of the Aniaimaeda station of Akita Nariku line, there is a Blacksmith shop which is famous for selling hunter’s knife, Nagasa. First day we arrived early, so we went to this famous shop. And it was so fortunate that we saw the process how to forge hunter’s knife. The owner said that hunter’s knife forging technique is almost similar to make samurai sword, and the most difficult process is to bond two different metals together. In my opinion, every strike makes their spirit concentrating to every unique knife.Secret weapon to walk and float on the snow
At the beginning of the tour, we experienced how to tie the knot of traditional snow-shoes. Unfortunately I was not good at this kind of work. We sit beside the old hunter and watched at his demonstration. After several times I finally did it! As I tried to walk with the snow-shoes, it gave me no sense of security. I had no idea about if it’s possible to use them while walking in the snow. But honestly speaking, it fascinated me next day and made me respect the wisdom of hunters. The nature here is our kitchen
After the experience of snow-shoes, we were brought to outdoor. Wondered what would happen next, hunters took out some sacks which three lively Hinai-chickens were inside. Went through some bloody scenes, we removed their hair and started to dismantle three whole chickens. The process wasn’t as easy as we can see how supermarket did. Wild and rash the hunters helped us to break down them. The organs, meat and bones were carefully separated and sent into the kitchen. I also found out they put yellowish chicken fat aside. The chicken fat was the original spirit of chicken hot pot. While we were busy at cutting up the chicken, some people prepared to make the rice stick on another kitchen table. The first step to make a good-looking rice stick you needed to wet your hands, so that the rice wouldn’t be too sticky to maintain the shape. Next step was to scatter the rice evenly on the woody stick. And the thinner the rice covered on the stick the more delicious it would be, so that you can enjoy the good smell crispy rice.
Some big bags filling up with river fish were brought into the kitchen. And we changed our battlefield from making rice stick to fillet the fish. The fish is called Iwana. Roughly speaking it’s a kind of trout. We cleaned and gutted the fish, covered some salt prepared to have delicious grilled fish. There were many eggs inside their guts, we took out them carefully. We also prepared sashimi as well. Everyone in this kitchen looked like professional chefs, because we concentrated to do every work in front of us. In this atmosphere, I had an impression that this small kitchen belonged to us and we were a big family!Early started party
The dinner party didn’t start at the time everyone sits down on their seats. It started early at the time we made rice stick. The old lady who worked there gave us a bowl of miso. Once the rice stick has been grilled we can eat it with miso. We can eat the just-made delicious rice stick; also we can taste the joy of making food by ourselves. There also had the toasted walnuts, the extraordinary flavor concentrated the spirit of whole forest. I think this was another special experience. After a busy afternoon, it was time for the party! Japanese-style cheers and self-introduction by using unskillful Japanese all gave me freshness. Moreover, the delicious food made me feel amazing. The soup of chicken hot pot which extracted from the essence of chicken was awesome. The special taste of chicken oil could be the one and only experience in my life. Rice stick soaked in the chicken soup; it became another special flavor. Special food like raw chicken breast, river fish sashimi and fish eggs were all tasty. It was not easy to describe how delicious the food was but I can say that every material was come from this mountain. Ate it than you would understand how gentle the Mother Nature gave us those special foods.
It was time for special performance came on the stage! Powerful and vigorous Taigo performance and the moving chord of Shamisen were so amazing. Accompanied with the Shamisen, we sang together a traditional folk song, Akitabosi. With the light rhythm, the distance between us got closer and closer. Maybe we can consider the feast on the table represented the mountain and local people living together. And the special performance made our heart get together as if we were a big family.
The hunter showed up, and it came to another climax. He demonstrated many animals’ sound and shared a lot of interesting things while he went hunting. He also chatted with me and taught some Akita dialects which made me feel so happy. The first day of this tour came to an end while chatting with hunter happily. ‘Go to sleep early! We have to walk into the snow forest tomorrow!’
Walked into woods, became a real hunter
It snowed heavily in the morning at the inland area of Akita. After we finished the breakfast, we started to prepare some equipment for walking into the wood. Tightened up the traditional snow-shoes, time to start our adventure walked with hunter into snow forest. Hunter guided the road and deepened into the forest. Every footprint of animals can’t escape his eyes. He pointed out the footprint to us and told us what animal it was. Also he told some story of this area about the plant and the terrain. I was so worried about the snow-shoes at the beginning, but it worked very well. The large area of treads primarily distributed the pressure caused by the weight, so that the foot would not fall into deep snow. After walking thirty to forty minutes, we reached the mid-point. While we took a rest and had a cup of tea, a young hunter demonstrated the shooting pose so that we can take the picture. I heard local people talking about some problems of hunter culture faced. There are more than 80 percent of licensed hunters in Akita whose age is over fifty years old. Only one twenty years old hunter in Akita, and he was in our line. I can’t help thinking about Taiwanese aboriginal culture also facing same problems here. How to preserve these kinds of cultural heritage so that this spirit can root deeply into the hearts of Akita people is an important question.Let’s eat the food from snowfield restaurant
Time to walked back to activity center; the old ladies in the kitchen have already cooked the rice for making Mochi. We swing our freezing hands and started to help them. The process of making Mochi was to use wood hammer to pound the rice. Although it snowed heavily, everyone tried to make great effort to pound the Mochi made the air become warmer. After the Mochi were done, the snow hot pot was also ready to eat. Hunter took out his treasured bear meat and added into the hot pot. Eating the bear meat with delicious soup and imagining the scenes of bear hunting made me think as if I was a hunter. We also had a BBQ party on the snowfield. Pork was piled up on the table, and we can chop the pork depending on how much we want! Everyone took a piece of meat and stringed on the bamboo stick; directly put it near the fire. I need to say again it was really cold outside. But once I saw the pork sizzling over the charcoal, hunger made me have warmth. It was a unique experience. This time we used sky as roof, mountain as storage and snow field as canteen. ‘This is also a part of the hunter’s daily life!’ I can’t help but thinking this. For a moment, I had an illusion as if I had hunter’s blood in my body.The end
We are family!
During this two-day tour I have been deep struck by the feeling of big family. Everyone gathered from different place, but we cooked and drank and chatted and laughed with each other. There was no difference between local people or tourists, and we seemed to be a big family. We were doing the work busily and tried devote our own to help everything; finally we shared the fruit after the hardworking. Drinking sake, chatting with local people, having some joke and laughing together make me recall some sweet and warm scenes of Chinese New Year in Taiwan. Especially in this countryside our visit might be regarded as special guests. I will treasure this special feeling in my heart, because I know there was a time we got together as a big family in Akita!
Akita people, Matagi spirit
The Matagi are traditional hunters of the Tohoku area of Japan. The history of Matagi can be traced back to Heian period. They don’t like commercial hunters without any regulation to hunt. Matagi respects everything from mountains. They have some specific hunt ceremonies, and appease the soul of prey. Every time if they come back safely and have harvest, they will thank the gods of mountain who give them bless. The Matagi culture gradually declines because the master and disciples relationship. The experience and custom are only taught orally. As I mentioned at the beginning, the hunter culture stays in Akita people’s life everywhere. It is said that rice stick is the Matagi’s ration when they go to hunting. During this tour we experienced the intact hunter’s life from chicken to bear. We personally witness the process from living creatures into delicious food, though it was too cruel. But we can learn their attitude towards respecting every soul from mountains, we are grateful to taste chicken, river fish and all the food on the table. Some people also say that Matagi is not just a work, it represents an attitude of life. Facing such gradually declined culture, although I’m a foreigner, I can’t help thinking how to save these valuable cultural heritages. If you have opportunities, please come to Akita inland area, try to experience Matagi lifestyle and get used to the authentic culture. Finally it will become a small part of your life! Welcome to Akita inland area!
Written by 賴羿均(Taiwanese)